"America's Got Talent" provided its usual eclectic mix of performers on Tuesday. However, even as a grade-school contortionist, fire act and pole dancer made their way to the next round of the competition in Las Vegas, it was the more conventional singing acts that stole that stole the show.
R&B artist Kyle Rifkin grew up with an alcoholic father who abused his mother. When he left home temporarily to escape, Rifkin earned money to help support his family by begging for change and entering singing contests. "I had to win — I had no money," he said.
Now a wedding singer, Rifkin performed "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by the Temptations. He teared up at the beginning and it briefly looked like it might wind up being one of the saddest audition stories ever, but instead he pulled it off and won the admiration of the judges. Everyone cried, all right — but with happiness.
"There are times that I hate being a judge on this show and there are other times — like now — when I absolutely love it. You are what this show is about," David Hasselhoff said. The judge then gave him a standing ovation, and Rifkin sniffled.
If that wasn't enough, Piers Morgan had him bring his mother onstage before making his own comment: "When this show works at its best is when we take a guy like you, who comes from no great privileged background or anything, and as you perform, you just feel like you're watching the heart of America. You are right up there with the best we've seen," he said.
At that point, even Jerry Springer was wiping away a tear.
Sarah Lenore didn't get that level of love when she auditioned in Atlanta, but the guitar-toting waitress did win praise with her version of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." She sang well enough that the judges noted her skills went beyond the usual pretty-girl-who-looks-the-part kind of contestant.
"You've got to work on your individuality because there are a lot of blond young pretty girls that sing and play guitar — but I think you have a great future," Sharon Osbourne said before the judges unanimously sent her to the next round.
Small children and big groups shine
It was also a big day for kids and groups acts.
Two elementary schoolers got a ready-made answer to those likely "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" assignments this fall by earning their own trips to Vegas.
The most impressive of the two was fifth-grader and contortionist Victoria Jacoby. At an age where doing the splits qualifies as impressive, Jacoby managed to, among other things, bringing a glass to her mouth with her feet.
Jacoby advanced unanimously, but the journey was a little tougher for Alexandra Pyles. The innocent-looking 10-year-old did a martial arts routine with her father that ended with a groin stomp that made the men in the audience wince. Hasselhoff asked if she'd be his security guard, and she wouldn't be the worst choice in the world for that job.
Morgan was the most realistic of the judges, saying "The reality check here is that you are very good, but that act is not going to win America's Got Talent." Still, it was good enough to move her onward, despite Morgan's skepticism.
Among the groups to earn a spot in the next round was The James Gang, a New York quartet that mixed old and new musical styles to come up with a fresh song-and-dance number that Hasselhoff called his favorite act of the day. "I am seeing a great representation of what this town is about" Hasselhoff gushed afterwards.
'Sing like a man!'
Of course, this wouldn't be a reality show without the really bad performances.
Health inspector Billy Dodson began the night with an unexpected soprano solo that perplexed rather than pleased the judges. None understood how that voice came out of his body, and none cared enough to keep him around so they could find out. "Sing like a man!" Osbourne told him.
Debra Weiner was awful singing "Dancing in the Streets," but at least she got to have the memory of Hasselhoff dancing off the stage. Peter McIntosh, who might well be the least-adept ventriloquist in reality show history, got called "absolutely barking mad," by Osbourne before cursing at Morgan and leaving the stage to boos.
But the death of a dream was particularly harsh for the husband-and-wife team making up "Polka Today." The act, which claimed to be "The Michael Flatley of Polka," had a bizarre routine to the noted polka classic "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves. Nothing says polka, after all, like 1980s pop music.
"It kind of looked to me like you were in the blender," a perplexed Hasselhoff said. "It looked like you were having a lot of fun, but I didn't quite get it."
"You could fun with a sack race, but we don't want to see a sack race, do we? That was silly dancing," Osbourne added.
She shouldn't be so sure of that … a sack race would fit right into the usual audition mix. But at least for one night, those novelty acts largely stayed in the background.